Leonidas Frank Chaney took his first breath on April 1, 1883. His parents, Frank and Alice, were deaf, and Leonidas quickly learned that pantomime was the best way to communicate with them. This skill would turn Leonidas into an icon of film, better known to us all as Lon Chaney: the Man of a Thousand Faces.
For Chaney, his rise to stardom began on stage as he traveled with popular Vaudeville acts of the time. Along with his pantomime, Chaney learned the secrets of the best makeup men in the American theater and began to experiment on himself.
While touring, the 22 year old Chaney met and married 16 year old Cleva Creighton. When Cleva became pregnant, the two left the traveling life behind and settled in California. Three years later, Chaney and Cleva were seen as quite the successful, happy couple. Chaney was managing the Kolb and Dill show at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles, and Cleva’s singing career was prospering. In reality, the couple were at each other’s throats, and had been almost from the start.
On April 30, 1913, Cleva arrived at the Majestic with a bottle of mercuric chloride. She walked into the theater, opened the bottle, and drank the contents. Cleva survived her suicide attempt, but her singing career was ruined. Within a year, Cleva and Lon Chaney would divorce. Their only child, Creighton, would be sent to a variety of homes and boarding schools as the two fought over custody. The divorce, which was quite the story at the time, ended Chaney’s stage career.
Out of work, Lon Chaney turned his attention to film. He found that his makeup skills gave him an edge over other struggling actors; Chaney would show up to auditions in makeup fitting any role. Chaney remarried, this time to a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings. Upon their marriage, Chaney gained custody of his son. Hazel, who was never a fan of the limelight, took to the life of a mother quickly.
While Hazel created a stable home for Creighton, Lon signed a contract with Universal Studios. The deal kept Lon working, but the money barely kept him out of debt. As Lon’s prominence at the studio grew, he demanded a raise. William Sistrom, the kind of jerk studio exec that always pops up in these stories, made it clear to Lon that there would be no raise in the most dickish way possible. Sistrom stood eye to eye with Lon and told him, “You’ll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week.”
Lon Chaney walked out of Universal, ending his contract with them. Less than a year later, he proved Sistrom wrong when he played the foil to William Hart in RIDDLE GAWNE. In the film, a silent western, Chaney played Hame Bozzam, the undisputed badass of Bozzam City until Hart’s Jefferson “Riddle” Gawne takes him on. The film was a critical and financial hit, setting Chaney up for greater roles. His part as The Frog, which he also did the makeup for, in THE MIRACLE MAN a year later shot Chaney straight into stardom.
Following THE MIRACLE MAN, Chaney took on the part of a gangster who has had both legs amputated in THE PENALTY. Chaney went on to play Fagin alongside Jackie Coogan’s OLIVER TWIST in 1922. A year later, he would take on the first iconic horror character of his career.
For years, there was one roll chaney wanted to take on; Quasimodo. At the first opportunity, Chaney purchased the rights to Victor Hugo’s classic novel and began to work out a film version. At one point, Chaney considered starting his own production company and making the film overseas to escape the American censors. In 1922, Chelsea Pictures Company, a German studio, announced that they would be making THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME with Lon Chaney. Shortly after the announcement, Chelsea Pictures shut down.
Irving Thalberg was working with a bum ticker. Born with a congenital heart defect, Thalberg’s parents were told he would be lucky to reach thirty. The ticking clock set how Thalberg worked. He moved fast and he didn’t stop. This, along with his amazing eye for talent, made Thalberg Hollywood royalty. By the time he was 20, Thalberg became Universal’s first ever Studio Manager, watching over the 30 productions the company was making. Thalberg was annoyed at by Universal’s method of making movies – every film was given a budget too low to compete with the bigger studios, and Thalberg didn’t just want to be one of the big guys, he wanted to be the biggest. He presented Universal with his plan, starting with a high budget version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. All he had to do was get Lon Chaney to agree.
Chaney came to Universal with a long list of demands. He knew that more than wanting him to star in the film, Universal needed Chaney’s rights to the novel, and he knew Thalberg would do anything to get it. To Chaney’s surprise, Thalberg and Universal didn’t argue. They gave him everything he wanted and by January 1923, filming began on the Universal lot.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME cost Universal a million dollars, and grossed more than 3x that. The film was praised by critics, with special attention to Chaney’s self-created makeup of Quasimodo. What Chaney did with the role was unlike anything that had come before, and it was clear to every other studio that they were going to have to step up their game.
Universal’s president, Carl Laemmle had a pet project of his own, and he knew he would need Chaney to pull it off. During a vacation in Paris, Laemmle read Gaston Leroux’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in a single sitting. Before leaving France, Laemmle had purchased the rights to the novel with plans to get Chaney for the role of Eric, the disfigured Phantom.
Production started in 1924, and it was a full on disaster. Chaney and the rest of the cast and crew didn’t get along with director Rupert Julian, and the tension apparently showed up in the finished product. After two preview screenings in January 1925, Universal pulled the movie from their release schedule, choosing to reshoot the majority of it. Julian refused to return.
Universal hired Edward Sedgwick to direct the reshoots. Sedgwick brought in Raymond L. Schrock to work with original screenwriter Elliot Clawson to write new scenes. The three turned the Gothic melodrama into a romantic comedy. Actors Chester Conklin, Vola Vale, and Ward Crane were brought in as comedic relief, playing the parts of “Orderly” “Christine’s Maid” and “Count Ruboff” respectively. By the end of April, the film was ready for a preview screening.
It was even worse that than Rupert Julian’s version. The audience actively booed during the screening.
Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber re-edited the film, combining the two versions to create something audiences wouldn’t revolt over. Finally released in October 1925, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was a financial success, but the reviews were rather mixed. While everyone agreed that Chaney’s makeup work was the star of the movie, the story and acting left critics wanting.
With PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Chaney had hit the pinnacle of his career. For the next five years, he would continue to make films, many of them pushing his makeup effects even further, like the role of Alonzo, the armless knife-thrower in THE UNKNOWN. Some would be considered super racist today, like his yellowface work for MR. WU. as both Mr. Wu and Grandfather Wu.
Chaney’s final iconic role would be The Man in the Beaver Hat for Tod Browning’s lost film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. He would make a single film with sound, 1930’s remake of THE UNHOLY THREE. In 1929, Chaney was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. He would pass on Tuesday, August 26, 1930. During his funeral, every film studio observed two minutes of silence in his honor.
Chaney’s son, Creighton, started his own film career two years after his father’s death, though his career wouldn’t take off until he changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr.
Without Lon Chaney, it’s possible we wouldn’t have the talents of artists like Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, or Greg Nicotero. The love of special effects and makeup for these men all started with Chaney. It may have been THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, or THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME that first caught the attention of countless makeup men and women, but it’s nearly impossible to find someone who isn’t influenced by the man and his work. His makeup work and excellent acting gave countless moviegoers nightmares, and are still looked at as some of the best monster effects in film.
*Header Photo: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) Universal Pictures